Heng Samrin, Man of the People

Cambodian Heng Samrin played a crucial role in ridding the country of Pol Pot. Still, he prefers life in the shadows.

In the public conscious around Southeast Asia, Heng Samrin has long been an understated figure. Even at home, in Cambodia, the Khmer who led the Vietnamese-backed invasion that ousted Pol Pot and his band of murderous thugs usually lurks in the distant background.

It’s a place he’s happy to occupy.

At the end of 1979, after numerous cross-border incursions by the Khmer Rouge in places like Tay Ninh, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese, Hanoi retaliated – and through its invasion, unveiled to a disbelieving the world the atrocities committed by the ultra-Maoists.

The West, large parts of the non-aligned movement and the Communist east were happy to vilify the man they saw as a traitor for siding with the Vietnamese, who at that point in history could count only on the Russians. The Khmer Rouge, in contrast, had saddled-up with the Chinese and the Americans, who were brooding over their Indochinese experience and battlefield losses to Hanoi.

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Such power plays failed to impress Heng Samin, who became the leader of the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea, head of state, leader of the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party, senior privy councillor to the king and ultimately president of the National Assembly.

The name calling was met with about as much indifference as water off a kampong duck’s back.

Decades later, and Hemg Samrin is still called upon to fulfil the odd duty or two for what is now the Cambodia People’s Party, although his heart remains firmly back in the kampong – a far cry from the revolutionaries (communist or otherwise) who toppled Pol Pot and remain in power to this day.

In commemorating this, the CPP has just released a book on Heng Samrin, A Man of the People, dedicated to the party’s reluctant hero. It’s not the all-encompassing biography of the man that deserves to be written nor a scholarly work. Instead, it’s a coffee table book that is historically important, accompanied by some quite rare photographs and text that offers some insights into a time when few, if any, documents existed.

Only a few hundred copies have been printed and they should be sought out by diplomats, academics, journalists and aficionados of Southeast Asia. The book was also largely due to the efforts of Australian author and journalist Peter Starr, who collected the pictures and edited the text.

Starr has lived in a small village by the Mekong River for more than a decade and has enjoyed far more backstage passes to the political machinations of Cambodia and its neighbours than an average ambassador can boast.

He was there on Monday night when Heng Samrin chaired the 32nd annual meeting of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly in Phnom Penh.

‘I couldn't help feeling that this was one of the great ironies of Southeast Asian history. Thirty years ago, most of the countries sitting around the table were vilifying the man as an evil communist puppet of Vietnamese military expansionists,’ Starr says. ‘Even today, there are senior politicians in the region who argue that Vietnam had no right to intervene militarily against Pol Pot in 1979.’

Such historical amnesia, Starr says, is an insult to the hundreds of Vietnamese civilians brutally murdered in cross-border attacks by Pol Pot’s forces. He also said the meeting provided an ideal opportunity to launch the book and set the record straight on several issues.

‘I was keen to put together an illustrated history of the life of one of Asia's elder statesmen, an extremely humble man who has a political career stretching back more than half a century,’ he says. ‘As for the genocide in Cambodia, it's interesting to note that Heng Samrin himself admits that the trouble began only a few days after liberation by Pol Pot forces.’

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That was back in April 1975.

Today, Heng Samrin is a much loved figure on the Cambodian political landscape, although his duties are often largely ceremonial and are removed from the rough and tumble of Cambodian politics.

However, given his firm friendship with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen – who also deserted the ranks of the Khmer Rouge and sought help from the Vietnamese – the reluctant leader who helped numbered Pol Pot’s days might find himself even further up the CPP totem pole in the near future.